Extract

Oasis of palm

The Athenian palms of Navine G Khan-Dossos

The palm trees of Athens have been under siege from city planners and a deadly parasite, but the inventive artist Navine G Khan-Dossos has created a space in an abandoned museum attic where her stylised palms can flourish. By Thomas Roueché. Photographs by Nikos Kokkas and Yiannis Hadjislanis

  • Navine G Khan-Dossos (photographed by Nikos Kokkas) breathes new life into the top floor of the Benaki’s Museum of Islamic Art with her mural, ‘Imagine a Palm Tree’

Athens is a city rich in contradictions. Birthplace of western European culture, it was for centuries at the heart of the eastern Ottoman Empire, capital of a kingdom, then a republic, and in recent years emblematic of the profligate “South” of the EU. “Oh, it’s very European!” says the visitor, with the same surprise we hear from tourists in Istanbul. And it is perhaps through its urban aesthetic that we first superficially understand a city such as this.

When the artist Navine G Khan-Dossos moved to Athens in late 2015, she began to hear the story of the city’s once-endemic palm trees, which tells how, at some moment of historic upheaval – with the lifting of the “Ottoman yoke”, or during Nazi occupation, or in the years of the Junta – a decision was taken to root out from public spaces the ultimate symbol of the East. The palm, so evocative of sun-drenched luxury, had no place in the western-facing kingdom or republic of Greece…

Imagine a Palm Tree is Navine’s response to the myths surrounding the palms of Athens. At the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, she has revived the top-floor café, forced to close by government budget cuts. A mural of stylised palms symbolises the vertical axis of the city: the leaves spread up into the realms of Wi-Fi, CCTV and telephones, the roots down towards the underground system and networks of cables and fibre optics. The symbols of technology are woven together with Islamic-style pattern and organic forms to create layers of aesthetic and conceptual detail. Fixing on the palm tree as a lodestar reveals the complexities and contradictions of the Mediterranean city, ever strung out between conflicting ideas of where, precisely, on what civilisational longitude, it lies.

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Issue 55, Parodies Lost
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Issue 55, Parodies Lost
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